The annual Warsaw Security Forum brings together a motley and influential array of scholars and journalists, ex-presidents and serving ministers, soldiers and arms dealers, in what is not only one of the largest and more interesting such gatherings around, but also one with a distinct Central European flavour. This year’s, the largest yet, was suffused with serious concerns about a moral and political crisis in the West and a Russian challenge that takes fullest example of this – and yet a distinct absence of any clear, strategic responses, or perhaps a reluctance to acknowledge what they are. Nonetheless, in the process the forum presented one of the best pictures yet of the dilemmas facing the West.
Who are we?
On successive panels, speakers lamented a crisis of the Western liberal order, assailed by populism, divisiveness and, in a prevailing theme, a lack of strong and visionary leadership. Outgoing Estonian president Toomas Ilves, who received the Knight of Freedom award from the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, organisers of the event, certainly presented an eloquent alarum. Something of a legend in the region, not least for his prescient warnings of Russian revanchism, Ilves spoke of Moscow's “rollback of the Enlightenment”. He saw its various legacies, from individual rights to the division between church and state, being eroded in Russia, and his fin de siècle obituary for the liberal order’s ascendancy undoubtedly chimed with the mood of the gathering.
On one level, this is an issue of practical geopolitics. Populist and semi-authoritarian movements and divisions within the European Union and Nato provide opportunities for Russia not so much to divide and conquer – although certainly in Poland and the Baltic States there is a belief in the potential for overt military aggression – so much as divide and distract.
It is also an existential question about the direction and determination of the West. American speakers tended to be bullish about a likely Hillary Clinton presidency providing strong leadership. The Europeans, though, appeared unwilling to put their faith in a queen across the water or, indeed, even to believe that Washington could or would change the mood in their continent. Rather, from Brexit to Jobbik, they seemed consumed more with fundamental crises that in their varied ways all spoke to a lack of clarity as to the vision of the EU in the future.
What do we face?
Viewed from Washington or London or even Berlin, Russia tends to be framed as a challenge, a problem. In Warsaw, discussion moved much more quickly to Russia as an outright threat. This is more than just a question of semantics, or political correctness (and the lack thereof). While some further west do accuse the frontline states of inflating the scale of the danger in order to mobilise public support and inflate their own role within Nato in particular (and this is not completely false), it does the Poles and Balts in particular a disservice to regard it as so much crying wolf.
After all, even if one may be willing to discount their fears of a direct military intervention, even of the “little green man” variety – it seems highly unlikely that Moscow really would risk all-out war with Nato – they have for years faced the kind of mischief and meddling with which the US is only just beginning to come to terms. Russian intelligence operations across Central Europe are aggressive and extensive; Russian propaganda, while often of limited real impact, remains opportunistically manipulative; and Russian money continues to flow into anonymous bank accounts, strategic investments and divisive political groups alike.
And what is to be done?
Even if there is consensus on the problem, it is rather harder to agree on what to do. The conventional Nato security model is based on deterrence, but how does one deter computer hacking, propaganda, and political interference? It may be that the recent leak of emails from the office of Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s point man on Ukraine, is less the work of audacious Ukrainian hackers and more the first warning shot in a game of cyber-deterrence, but beyond that it is clear that the old tools and tactics have little utility.
To this end, the unpalatable options are containment or regime change, but perhaps unsurprisingly many at the forum felt unwilling seriously to discuss or even acknowledge them. Both, after all, are distinctly uncomfortable to consider.
Containment, essentially trying to lock Russia away from the rest of the world until it abandons its current stance, is far harder in a day of interconnected economies, rival power centres and the lack of any true ideological divisions. It also means accepting an open-ended cold war which could last years, conceivably even decades, while maintaining the kind of domestic controls necessary to prevent and foil Russian penetration and mischief.
That is still much less difficult and dangerous than engendering change in the Kremlin. The official position across Nato and the EU is that their objective is only to bring about changes in policies the West finds noxious or threatening. All well and good, but if this extends to getting Moscow to return Crimea or to stop rigging elections or suppressing critical media, then it is hard-going-on-impossible to see Putin ever being able to accept this. Apart from what the lethal blow that, for example, surrendering Crimea would deliver to his political authority, given what we know about him as a person, could one even consider his being willing to entertain the possibility?
What if there is no way to bring about the kind of policy changes that the West considers the necessary minimum to end the current confrontation under the present leadership?
Do Western democracies – which, as speakers observed at the forum, have many great virtues, but rarely count patience among them – simply circle the wagons and wait for Putin to vacate the Kremlin? Or do they adopt what he anyway believes is their policy, active support for such a transition sooner rather than later? This is the intractable question most would rather ignore at this stage, let alone answer.
It would be easy to give the sense that this was a depressive event, but that would be misleading. Judging by the Warsaw Security Forum, the mood within Central European security elites is sober and introspective. There is determination, visible in Poland's commitment to raise its defence spending above Nato's requirement of 2% of GDP – a figure most members still do not reach – as well as growing scrutiny of financial flows from Russia, however carefully concealed.
Rather, it is to note that these measures, however important, still fall short of a common Western strategy. This is hardly surprising given that the US and the major European powers lack anything of the sort. There is a need to answer the fundamental questions: what does the West want from Russia, and how far is it willing to go to get it?
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.